Middle Tennessee State University will be making connections at Murfreesboro’s Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18, to capture and preserve the family stories that flavor community gatherings just like hickory smoke and peach cobbler.
MTSU’s Albert Gore Research Center, which has been preserving Middle Tennesseans’ stories since 1999, is making use of its portion of a new grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to collect oral histories from African American residents of Middle Tennessee.
Jason McGowan, an oral history research associate with the Gore Center, will be at the historic Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center, located at 415 S. Academy St., on June 18 for the city’s 10 a.m.-4 p.m. celebration marking enslaved African Americans’ emancipation.
He’ll be on hand to answer questions, distribute information and put guests at ease while he helps arrange to record their stories.
Representatives from MTSU’s College of Liberal Arts, Center for Historic Preservation, University College and undergraduate admissions office also will join McGowan, plus more Gore Center colleagues, at information tables at the June 18 event.
A website McGowan created, https://jasonmcgowan217.wixsite.com/mtaaoh, has more details about the Middle Tennessee African American Oral History Project.
“Like with anything, some people are going to be excited to participate, while others may decline or just need reassurance, and that’s why I like to do what we call the pre-interviewing, because it’s the key to building those relationships … and reassuring them that what we’re doing here is not just for MTSU, not just for academia, but it’s for you — you and your family. You’re simply allowing us to share your experiences,” explains McGowan, a Murfreesboro native who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MTSU.
“Oral history just provides a medium to preserve family genealogy, record one’s relationship with their families, with their communities, and with the era in which they live.”
McGowan’s interest in Bradley Academy and Murfreesboro’s history is deeply personal as well as professional.
His late grandfather, Willie McGowan, led the 1990s effort to save and restore Rutherford County’s first school, which included President James K. Polk among its pre-Civil War alumni. In 1884 it became the county’s first school for African American students and served children until 1955.
The senior McGowan’s and his colleagues’ success transformed a fading building into a popular museum and community center on the National Register of Historic Places. It now features regular events and historic exhibits — and plenty of opportunities for telling and collecting stories.
Gore Center Director Louis Kyriakoudes says McGowan’s yearlong oral history project, which he began in February, “directly connects MTSU with people in our local community in a cooperative, collaborative effort to document the stories of individuals and how their histories are really the building blocks of our common history as a community and a society and a state.”
It’s one of five interdisciplinary humanities projects funded by the NEH grant and shared by the College of Liberal Arts and the Center for Popular Music at MTSU. They also include:
• Creating a digital database of political buttons, posters and other items.
• Digitizing a bound collection of popular 19th- and early 20th-century songs.
• Researching the Tennessee Rural Women’s Suffrage Newspaper Project.
• Presenting a yearlong, campuswide “Interpreting Global Literatures” program through the University Writing Center.
The oral histories project isn’t limited to older contributors, McGowan says.
“I always think about it as what are some of the things I want to ask my granddad but I wasn’t able to,” he says. “Even though this person (being interviewed) may not even know my grandfather, they may have grown up in the same time period, and the stories he tells and the stories this other person tells may connect in one way, or you may get two completely different aspects of the same time frame.
“That’s enjoyable too, because you get to see it holistically, to see the holistic evolution of Black people here in this middle Tennessee area. … Sometimes a smell, a word, a feelingcan trigger something: ‘You know what? I just remembered this. I haven’t thought about this in so long.’ People have stories; they just might need to be reminded of them.”
For more information about the Middle Tennessee African American Oral History Project, contact McGowan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-898-2030. To learn more about the work of the Gore Center, visit www.mtsu.edu/gorecenter.
More information about the programs of the College of Liberal Arts at MTSU is available at www.mtsu.edu/liberalarts.
For the city of Murfreesboro’ complete Juneteenth 2022 schedule, visit www.murfreesborotn.gov/2252/Juneteenth.
— Gina E. Fann (email@example.com)